A Zola dictionary; the characters of the Rougon-Macquart novels of Émile Zola; with a biographical and criticial introduction, synopses of the plots, bibliographical note, map, genealogy, etc
December 15, 2008
List of characters for Emile Zola novels
`A Zola Dictionary`, first published in 1912, is still in re-print (on Amazon) as of this review. The bulk of the dictionary is an alphabetical list of every character from the 20 Rougon-Macquart novels with a sentence to paragraph long description. The books sub-title says it also contains: "a biographical and critical introduction, synopses of the plots, bibliographical note, map, genealogy, etc." although these are somewhat brief in comparison to the character list at the heart of the book.
I find keeping track of the 100's of characters in each of Zola's novels difficult, they are non-English names that don't "stick" and are easily confused between similar sounding names, and many characters have more than one name depending on family relations. Even the primary characters have complex histories that it is helpful to have a summary for. Zola wrote "crowded novels" with characters showing up only once or twice. It's easy to skip over them if you don't remember who they are, perhaps briefly introduced 200 pages back and mentioned only once again, they are not central to the plot, but one misses the depth of Zola's intent.
`A Zola Dictionary` is the only comprehensive list of characters I have found. It is so comprehensive, for `La Terre` ("The Earth"), it contains the name of every cow, plus 4 or 5 historical brigands mentioned only once in passing - it seems as if every name has an entry. The downside is they are all listed alphabetically in one giant list without regard to which novel they are from (although this is noted at the end of each description) - so it's a chore to search the dictionary looking up a name - it would be better to have a single-page reference list of all characters within a particular novel to avoid page flipping through the dictionary. To that end I created such a list for `La Terre` and posted it on the web with descriptions extracted from this dictionary (see link below). Another problem is it contains serious and unnecessary plot spoilers. However, the plot spoilers are towards the end of each entry, so if one is in the middle of reading the novel and want a reminder of who a character is, just read the first sentence or two of the entry (this is not always easy!). Finally, the descriptions were written with the values of a Victorian moralist and will occasionally be laughable to the modern reader. I found this to be a bonus in helping understand the perspective of the age and what the English censors were so concerned about. For example in `La Terre`, a novel which contains incest as a central plot device, it is never mentioned in the dictionary at all, presumably bowdlerized from the English translations of the day.
List of characters in La Terre, extracted from `A Zola Dictionary` into a single page, with an optional no-Spoiler version.
(STB, 12-2008, 61)